Shadows Over Tekumel

You may or may not have heard the news that broke last week and spilled into the weekend concerning MAR Barker, creator of The Empire of the Petal Throne and the world of Tekumel. Rather than paraphrase what has become generally known, I will quote, in its entirety, the statement directly from the Tekumel Foundation:


The Tekumel Foundation Board of Directors wants to acknowledge that our research shows Professor M.A.R. Barker wrote Serpent’s Walk , an anti-Semitic novel that was published under a pseudonym in 1991. We have done our due diligence to ascertain the facts regarding Serpent’s Walk and Professor Barker’s affiliation with The Journal of Historical Review and we believe this needs to be recognized as part of Professor Barker’s past. While nobody today is responsible for the odious views Professor Barker presented in Serpent’s Walk , we are responsible for recognizing this book as part of his legacy.

That this acknowledgment was not done earlier was and is a mistake, and we apologize for that. We have been reaching out to several Jewish organizations to express our outrage over our findings and make our priority to work with them through this issue.

What Professor Barker did was wrong and forever tarnished his creative and academic legacy. As stewards of the world of Tekumel, we reject and repudiate Serpent’s Walk and everything it stands for and all other anti-Semitic activity Professor Barker was involved with.

The Tekumel Foundation has never been involved with or profited from the publication, distribution, or sale of Serpent’s Walk in any way, shape, or form. All of the proceeds from sales of Tekumel-related material have gone and will continue to go to the Foundation and its work, and not to any racist or anti-Semitic organizations or causes, in any way, shape, or form.

I’m not going to tell you how you should feel about this, whether you can or should take solace in separating the Tekumel materials from its maker. On a personal note, while I own some Tekumel material, I hadn’t yet had a chance to delve into it deeply so I have no personal investment in it. That said, this is profoundly disappointing and saddening to me on many levels, not the least of which because so many people who had invested a great deal of time, passion, and effort into that setting are now grappling with this issue in fundamental ways and forcing difficult decisions and re-evaluations upon them.

Much of the online discourse is messy. For once, there isn’t any doubt that Mr. Barker did these things. Instead, the battle lines have shifted to who knew about this and when, particularly in regards to the foundation. There probably isn’t going to be an answer that satisfies anyone on that score.

Regarding Tekumel itself, there have obviously been some re-assessments of the material. Redditor u/genernihilist posted a long commentary which I am, as with the Tekumel Foundation statement, reposting without comment (just slightly edited):

The short answer is: both the race science he believes in and ports into the setting and the political and socio-cultural fabric of the world as his worldbuilding is shaped by his lens on those things (both contemporary and historical).

The long answer is kinda long but I’ve been talking about this elsewhere so here goes! It was always obvious to me he was conservative from how he viewed the periods of history he was drawing on to worldbuild, exemplified in the worldbuilding, but it’s clear it goes beyond a conservative distortion of history to his eccentric fascism of ethnostates. When you read Serpent’s Walk , as I talk a bit about above, you can see that Barker’s particular type of far-right politic is about fascist ethnostates all over the world, his utopia is just fascism everywhere and all of it racially kept to themselves. The worldbuilding feels like it is structured to justify the development of those kinds of things, valorizing fantastical versions of what a state like that would be in the time periods he is drawing from (again, with his own far-right distortions on his read of those time periods front and center).

When I was talking about this elsewhere, a couple people had some insights that aligned with mine and said it more succinctly than me so I’ll paraphrase them a bit here.

  • Of all the aliens in Tékumel, every single species lives in their own homogenous communities, except for one which has more or less been absorbed into the empire because they make for useful soldiers.
  • The noble/ignoble morality system kinda gives away his politics as well, noble acts being in line with what authority prescribes/your place in society.
  • The language has two noun classes: Men and functions of the State, and literally everything else.
  • Reading the book and the primers make it very clear that this is all written from a very specific internal POV, let’s peel that away and see what’s underneath…and that immediately begs the question: what do the poor people think about this?
  • There’s also a contemporary sense of how locked down everything is. In a sense nothing ever changes in the setting except across deep time, hierarchies always remain, we can skirmish over borders or who gets to be the next emperor, but there are no forces from below or anything like that.

The structure of reality has his politics writ both large and small on it, from language to socio-cultural givens to political givens. Again, all of those bullet points are basically other people’s thinking on this I’m just including because I completely agree, but it echoes my own thinking substantially (though I hadn’t considered the linguistic angle at all until it was brought up).

Like I said in the reddit comment above, I love diving into the guts of a “problematic” setting and reworking it so that you both excise what was fucked about it and replace it with something that goes against what you excised and I think that can absolutely be done here, if you want to ! I have enough affection for Tékumel that I likely will do so at some point in the future just like for funsies. There’s probably two projects in there: Tékumel as separated from fascist imaginaries and Tékumel as a dark dystopian setting where all those elements are present but treated as things for players to resist and change (and I’m kinda more into the latter but might attempt both, though it’s not a huge priority at the moment).

I want to emphasize that I have always held a great deal of affection for Tékumel and love that it brings a cool non-Western/non-European perspective and a ton of really bizarre and weird stuff that is super charming and delightful. I always had a notion that he had a conservative distortion of history from how he constructed his setting as a pastiche of his conception of the real world history he was drawing from and how he wrote about the world in both the setting documents and his in-universe fiction, and knew he had said/written some rabidly anticommunist conservative stuff out in the open and so knew his politics weren’t aligned with mine, but I never imagined until a few months back finding this stuff out and reading Serpent’s Walk that it went much, much further to the right than simply conservative. I mean he was on the editorial board for a Holocaust denial ““academic”” journal for fuck’s sakes! And once you’ve read Serpent’s Walk , you can see the seeds of those views obscured in the very scaffolding and undergirding structures of his worldbuilding, in the assumptions and in the givens and norms, in the way he presents things. It’s not everywhere , and I want to emphasize that he isn’t one-dimensional in his depictions of any particular race or polity which is what makes this so shocking to so many! He is someone capable of nuance and a deeper imaginative understanding of so many aspects of his fiction and his worldbuilding, but it is exactly that capacity which then shows the ways he weaves in these aspects of his own far-right thinking into his creative works. Like I said, there are things to salvage! Tékumel can be better than what he made it, and so many amazing elements are already there to rid of the garbage he tried to fuse them with.

I have no doubt that much more will be said about all aspects of this as the realities sink in. I had just been reminded, not more than a couple of weeks ago, that I should try Tekumel and it had been firmly on my bucket list of TTRPG things I want to try before the end comes but, now, I don’t know.

The biggest question of all, why?, can’t be answered because the only person who could answer, Mr. Barker, is dead. Instead, we’re left with a void, like an invisible black hole at the center of Tekumel, whether you feel its gravity or not. I wish it weren’t but there it is.

Pauli Kidd posted a video on this as well.

GMSMagazine also posted a video: